Meet The Candidate Part Three: Successful Leadership:
Focused, not Blinkered
In business today, there is ever-increasing pressure to be more competitive, which in turn leads to the need for organisations to be more efficient, and staff to be more productive. The high-tech nature of many industries requires specialised experts, able to focus on very specific tasks and goals necessary to achieve the business objectives. The organisation should obviously be motivated to provide the resources to achieve these goals, and to remove, or prevent, impediments to staff productivity.
Or so the theory says. In reality, organisations are replete with institutionalised obstacles that hinder, or even completely prevent, employees from performing their jobs effectively. This is obviously not what senior management wants, so how and why does this situation arise, over and over again?
Part of the problem is the growing need for specialisation: expert staff focused on narrow areas of the business. This focus is good; it allows highly-skilled staff to perform well in their area, without being distracted by other parts of the organisation. But this focus cannot exist in isolation. There need to be other staff managing the bigger picture - the interactions between the individually focused groups. A business achieves its objectives by the coordinated action of all its separate parts, and if that coordination is missing or inadequate, the business will fail.
To take one typical (but real and genuine) example: a large company had a large, in-house Facilities department. It provided excellent service to all the employees, allowing them to focus on their own jobs rather than worry about whether their telephones worked or the drains were leaking. But this company decided its Facilities department cost too much, and shut it down, outsourcing Facilities management to a third-party supplier. This supplier did its job well, and the company was happy that it had improved efficiency and reduced costs. But that was only the superficial picture: it turned out the third-party supplier's contract only covered a fraction of the useful services the in-house team had provided. The company's staff found they were spending more and more time pursuing trivial Facilities issues, and therefore their own productivity and ability to achieve their business objectives dwindled.
The immense hidden cost to the company of having its own, specialised, highly-paid staff changing light bulbs, calling telecoms providers to fix network problems, etc, was never adequately considered. The management focus on reducing facilities costs had become a blinkered view of Facilities in isolation. No-one was looking at the bigger picture. The new structure of Facilities provision started to control the rest of the business, by the adverse impact it had on all staff, which is patently ridiculous. Facilities (or any business function) must serve the overall needs of the business; it is not a business goal in its own right. Instead of asking the question "how can we reduce Facilities costs?" management should have asked "how can we best provide a Facilities service that enables the organisation to function most productively?"
This example is not to pillory Facilities departments specifically; exactly the same story could be told for any business function in an organisation, and its interactions with other parts of the business (see the further examples below). But it is easy to see how this type of problem arises. A particular senior manager is always under pressure from his or her management (and usually rightly so!) to reduce costs and improve efficiency within the domain controlled by that manager. This is the issue: the need for specialisation in today's complex organisations extends up the management tree. Managers have their own business objectives on which they must focus, and cannot possibly be expected to understand, or even know about, all the complexities elsewhere in the organisation.
Of necessity, senior managers (along with, in fact, all employees at every level) are forced to make decisions with imperfect information. If they did not, the business would freeze with inactivity waiting for the perfect information that will never come. So making such decisions is not a bad thing; what is bad is not recognising the imperfection of the situation and allowing for it: that is, a focus on one issue makes people blinkered to the related issues. The difficulty is that senior managers often aren't given the opportunity to see these other issues. Once a decision has been taken, the rest of the workforce, including other managers, will correctly feel it is their duty to support the decision and to do their jobs as effectively as possible given that decision.
If someone finds that the consequences of a decision actually hinder their ability to do their job, they will often with the best intentions try and creatively find a way around the obstacle - and for isolated cases this is exactly the correct solution. But if many people are hindered by the same obstacle, and all of them are repeatedly seeking spot solutions, this is obviously a great inefficiency. What is required is a mechanism for highlighting these obstacles, reducing the imperfection of the available information, so that the higher-level decisions can be modified to remove the obstacle: in short, a process improvement feedback loop.
Such feedback loops exist in many small-scale (department-level) processes, but they are rare at the organisation level, and this is a critical omission. The reasons for this omission are varied. Often it is simply the case that there is no mechanism for reporting and collating obstacles. In some organisational cultures, there may be fear of reporting problems, in case it is seen as "whinging" or inappropriate questioning of a senior decision. That is unfortunate, as almost always the issue has been raised by someone with the genuine desire to improve both organisational productivity, and their own ability to achieve the goals the company has set them. It is important to recognise this and permit and encourage constructive suggestions at any level. The setting of any goal or objective should automatically come with the follow-up "...does this serve or hinder the overall organisational goals?" If it hinders, stop. If it serves, the further follow up is then "...and what else does the organisation now need to do to support the achievement of that goal?"
An example of this occurs frequently in organisations adopting the Agile project management methodology Scrum. One feature of Scrum is that it provides explicit daily visibility of any impediments to successful project completion. For Scrum to work, it expects these impediments to be removed (which can include such things as changing an objective to render the impediment irrelevant, etc). This requires commitment from the organisation: it is a two-way contract. If an organisation wants a project to adapt and use Scrum, and obtain all the benefits Scrum provides, the organisation must also recognise that all business functions interacting with that project may need to change their behaviour too. It is very rare that one business function can make any substantial productivity improvements in isolation, without support from other parts of the organisation.
This can be very difficult to achieve. Those other business functions weren't asked to use Scrum. They have their own objectives and constraints; they are focused on their own goals, as specified to them by their senior management. They are unlikely to respond to requests from another project - and it would be wrong for them to do so, otherwise they would be forever thrashing between conflicting requests from across the organisation. This is why organisational-level feedback is so important: it provides a controlled mechanism for highlighting the critical interdependencies, and allows the organisation to evolve and adapt to remove any obstacles amongst those dependencies. Without this, a well-intentioned focussing on one set of goals quickly becomes a blinkered ignorance of the overall objectives, and an organisation quickly degenerates into a set of competing silos, rather than a cooperating whole. Staff are put under increasing pressure to perform and deliver, in an environment that increasingly prevents them from doing so!
The best leaders are those who prevent this happening, and who most effectively balance the cooperation needed across the whole organisation, with the focus required for individual tasks. These leaders will expect high performance and productivity, and will provide the means to achieve this efficiently and effectively. By doing so, they will ensure success for their staff, their organisation, and themselves.
And finally, an example which highlights some of the key points discussed above.
In another company, technical staff needed specialised computer equipment, for the work they were doing implementing a large project. Towards the end of this project, some of this equipment failed during critical system testing and needed to be replaced. The project manager began using the organisation's procurement process. The first obstacle was that the necessary equipment wasn't part of the corporate standard, so needed special additional approvals that would take extra time. The second obstacle was the the procurement department had a backlog of work, so wouldn't be able to process the order for several days. When the project manager then learnt that the preferred supplier would take a further fortnight to deliver, he gave up. This all meant his project would miss its critical deadline.
He went to his own computer, looked up an internet supplier, and in less than a minute had ordered the necessary parts using his own credit card. The parts were delivered the next day, work continued and the project completed on schedule. When he claimed back his expenditure, he was formally chided for not using the procurement process, with only a vague, informal acknowledgement that his action had actually saved the project. How demoralising! Worse, the company did nothing to address the obvious defects in its systems that were hindering its employees' ability to deliver.
First, the idea of corporate standards for purchasing wasn't working; the standard was set so narrow that almost all requirements fell outside it. The standard had been set by IT management; it was their goal to have standard equipment configurations to reduce costs. They had achieved their goal, but at the expense of the wider business. Second, the procurement department had its goals of service delivery for purchasing requests; by servicing all requests in strict order, it was able to meet its goal - but this inflexibility made it completely unable to help other departments meet critical business objectives. Finally, the restriction on using only preferred suppliers helped the purchasing team meet their goal of maximising discounts, even if that meant other parts of the business would suffer as a result.
The mentality in many organisations are that these rigid, blinkered controls are in fact necessary to prevent chaos. While there is obviously a need to have controls, the point here is that those controls must be constructed to support and serve the business - not control it. Staff should not have to be put in the position of taking risky, heroic actions (such as buying critical company equipment on their own credit card - unless of course that is the agreed process!). At the very least, it gives staff a demoralising dilemma: should they follow the system, and be chastised for failing to meet the goal set them by the company; or should they cause trouble by ignoring the system in order to meet their goal? Either way, frustration, productivity losses and demoralisation are the result.
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